In the 1980s the political scientist Jon Elster wrote a book titled Ulysses and the Sirens where he uses the Homeric epic The Odyssey to illustrate the essence of democracy. In book 12 of The Odyssey, the enchantress Circe warns Ulysses of the dangers posed by the mythical Sirens, purportedly half women and half bird but in reality monsters, whose songs were irresistible to men and who endeavored to lure wayfarers to their deaths on the rocky cliff faces of the Siren’s island. Circe advised that only Ulysses should listen to their “honeyed song,” and that his men should plug their ears with beeswax while he be lashed to the mast of his ship after his men plugged their ears, and that even though he cried and begged them to untie him once he came to hear the Siren’s alluring tones, that he only be freed once his ship was far our of reach of the Siren’s voices. So it was, as Ulysses heeded her advice, made safe passage in spite of the temptress’s calls, and he and his crew proceeded on their decade-long voyage home from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca. As it turns out, it did not end well for all, which is a story for another day. (Thanks to Larry Rocke for correcting my initial mistaken read about their fate).
Elster’s use of the story is designed to highlight three related things. First (the minor point, about the false promise of ethereal options), that, as with the Sirens, while there may be many seemingly attractive alternatives to the inefficiencies of democratic governance, the perils imbedded in purported alternatives outweigh the (mythical) rewards that they claim to confer. Second, that a good leader prizes wise counsel and heeds their advice. Third (the major point), that democracy at its essence is a self-limiting (self-binding) form of governance in which incumbents of political decision-making positions deliberately refrain from making full or untrammeled use of the powers vested in them by virtue of the popular vote. The underpinning belief is that political decision-makers will adhere in principle to self-limitation because they understand and share Elster’s view of democratic governance: it is not just about the means of power acquisition and subsequent use once it public office; it is about (self) restraint in the exercise of power in pursuit of the common good. Power is exercised not for personal or partisan again. It is exercised for the benefit of all. And for that to happen, self-restraint is necessary.
Unfortunately, humans are not those most righteous of creatures so in recognition of human fallibility in practice limits are placed on public authority not by voluntary adherence to principle but by institutional mores, norms, laws and conventions. Constitutions are the highest expression of that enforced restraint in the exercise of power, and systems of checks and balances between different branches of government are the means by which self-restraint is imposed and enforced. The key to adherence is that all actors accept the importance of self-limitation in the first place and understand that the constitutional/institutional rules are designed to encourage collective compliance in the face of temptations to pursue individual or partisan agendas and policies inimical to the common good.
I call this the “straitjacket” theory of democratic politics. Politicians voluntarily accept the limitations on their powers imposed by systems of checks and balances when assuming public office. The understand why self-restraint is the essence of democracy, along with consent and compromise in the pursuit of second-best solutions that, if not satisfying everyone all of the time, satisfy enough people most pf the time so that the political system because self-reproducing (and re-generating!) on its own terms. There is a material as well as social-cultural component to this grand contingent compromise (i.e. expectations have to be met in order for collective consent to continue to be given), but the combination of universal laws and institutional norms and mores promote a type of political socialization in which self-restraint is seen and promoted as a civic virtue, not a weakness, because it promotes exactly that type of compromise when it comes to policy outcomes.
The rule of self-restraint applies to all political actors in a democracy, local and national, in government or in Opposition. The temporal boundaries of electoral cycles means that all actors get to compete again at some pre-determined and relatively short-term date. That means that losers today can become winners in the near future, and that current winners need to deliver on their promises if they are to win again. The implicit bargain is clear: governments do not press full advantage even if widely popular and Oppositions do not go full contrarian on every government initiative. That encourages moderation in debate and policy outcomes because adopting extreme, polarized positions violates the law of self-restraint and in so doing inhibits compromise on collective outcomes. If sides go for broke today when it comes to policy, they may find themselves on the receiving end of equally extreme counter-measures down the road, with the vicious cycle continuing from there. Recognition of this fact–that today’s political behavior casts a shadow on the future for better or worse–is another contributor to the adoption of self-limiting strategies by political actors. This is not just a matter of principle. It is a matter of pragmatism for those committed to operating under democratic governance paradigms.
From a cynically Marxist perspective, the need for political self-restraint in pursuit of contingent compromises rests on the fact that otherwise the rapacious and undemocratic nature of capitalism would be exposed by the zero-sum politics of its political puppets. Over the long term that augers poorly for capitalist political control and the social and institutional advantages that go along with it, so moderation and self-restraint under democratic institutions are, as Lenin noted, the best “political shell” for capitalism. The idea is to not get too greedy or partisan when it comes to profit-taking and political competition and to macro-manage the economy consensually so that profit-driven or partisan avarice is constrained. That way capitalist hegemony can be disguised and maintained rather than exposed and challenged. Someone who appreciated this fact in a non-Marxist way was John Maynard Keynes, and the phrase “Keynesian compromise” is often used describe his approach to political economy.
Whatever the interpretation, for today’s liberal democracies and a few of the newer experiments in that political form, this has been the unwritten political understanding that overlaps the social compact between governed and governors. There are always exception to the rule and moments in which principle falls hard on the sword of hypocrisy, opportunism and privilege, but in the main the enduring feature of democracy has been that those in positions of power do not take full advantage of the authority vested in them. In may not always be a matter of voluntary choice for them, but they understand why the straitjacket must be worn.
Those days are over. In the US but also in other parts of the world where US-style politics has leached like a cancer onto local democratic politics (think Brazil, but even places like Chile, the UK or Italy), politicians not only do not adhere to self-binding strategies but no longer accept the straitjacket premise. Whether a matter of principle or pragmatism, the shadow of the democratic future holds no sway over them and so self-restraint or limitation in the use of their authority is no longer considered a virtue. Instead, they work hard to use procedural, institutional and legal maneuver, aided and abetted by external forces such as direct pressure and gaslighting campaigns channeled via lobbyists, partisan and social media, to undermine and subvert the system from within—in other words, to unshackle the straitjacket, political Houdini-style in order to impose their partisan and personal preferences on society.
Hence the rise of a phenomenon known as the “constitutional coup” whereby disloyal Oppositions attempt to impeach government incumbents on false or flimsy grounds (again, Brazil is a sad example). Now there has appeared something known as the “procedural coup” where one (or two) branches of government attempt to usurp and override the decisions of another, effectively voiding the balance-of-power premise inherent in constitutional systems such as the US. And it was exactly that goal that motivated Trump and his supporters on January 6—to usurp the power of Congress to declare a winner in last year’s presidential race.
That has been laid out in gory detail by the investigations into the January 6 insurrection-turned-coup attempt in the US, where it has been revealed that there were orchestrated links between the White House, Republicans in Congress and insurrectionists to violently impede the certification of the Biden presidential victory. It is seen in Republican attempts to stack state election offices with partisans and to gerrymander and engage in voter suppression programs that skew elections in their favor. It is seen in GOP and rightwing activist groups coercively attempting to gain control of local government offices and school boards via impeachment and recall campaigns waged against serving incumbents. It is seen in the insanity of GOP House members spouting Qanon and other MAGA extremist beliefs in and outside the debating chamber, including threats of physical harm to Democrat colleagues. None of this is an exercise in self-restraint and clearly is an attempt to loosen the fetters of institutional noms and practices.
The US is the exemplar of democratic corrosion but it is not alone. Already the same type of tactics—cries of election fraud before elections are held in places like Brazil and Chile; instigation of civil, including militia resistance to duly constituted government mandates such as in Australia; attempts to delegitimize government with calls to arrest, try, imprison or execute public officials because of their use of public health orders to impose pandemic control measures, all with a wink and nod from opposition politicians, such as in Aotearoa–the very edifice of global democratic governance is being shaken from without and within.
It is the latter threat that is the concern here because a stable democracy is impervious to seditious conspiracies. In contrast, unstable or fragile democracies whose political leadership is ridden with ideological extremists, charlatans, grifters, profiteers and other unscrupulous self-interested maximizers of egotistic opportunities, in which the fundamental law of self-restraint no longer applies, is fertile ground for authoritarian usurpation from within or without.
It is quite possible that the US is too far gone down this path to avoid a civil war. But if democracy is going to be saved there as well as elsewhere, then we must return to the foundational principles upon which that political edifice rests: that those in public office practice self-restraint in the use of their authority and abide by the the imposed limits placed upon that authority by the system of checks and balances inherent in the tripartite division of government powers. Only then can we return to the type of horizontal as well as vertical accountability that a political system built on self- or imposed restraint can uniquely offer the society that it governs.